by Leah Falk
Before I got married this past October, my father called and asked if he could read a poem at my wedding. I knew it from the wedding album on my parents’ bookshelf: Typed on a word processor in a California courthouse sometime around 1980, it was part of the stock ceremony the justice of the peace brought with him to marry my parents in my grandmother’s backyard. The reading, having been part of one ceremony, now struck my father as some material for a family tradition — something all our own, against the backdrop of a Jewish ceremony and some typical American reception conventions.
Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other.
Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.
May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all the years.
May happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.
The poem in my parents’ album was titled “Navajo Prayer,” and, losing a lot in translation, I’d told my friends that my parents, a Bronx Jew and a lapsed California Protestant, had been married by a Navajo priest. But the first page of search results when I looked it up for my wedding revealed that it wasn’t ours at all. My father had unwittingly bought into an honored, and lucrative, American tradition: The embrace of the “traditionalesque.”
According to Rebecca Mead, the New Yorker writer who made one of the first deep incisions into what we now know as the “wedding-industrial complex” with her 2007 book One Perfect Day, the traditionalesque describes any tradition invented or refurbished more for the purpose of creating a market than for carrying on a culture. Trapped in that net, which could also be labeled “fakelore”: the diamond engagement ring (which, by now, we all know emerged from the hands of a De Beers copywriter), the “unity candle,” and other sundry neutrals of the contemporary white wedding.
It’s easy to write off the rituals crafted for the modern wedding industry as just so much Portlandia, but the more troubling items in the trousseau of the traditionalesque are the ones with roots, albeit obscured ones. Mead’s book revealed that America’s wedding industry knew the “Navajo Prayer” better by the name “Apache Wedding Blessing.” Its origins were not Native American, as suggested by a number of anthologies and “officiant services” websites, but the imagination of Elliot Arnold, author of the 1947 ethnographic novel Blood Brothers, which later became the 1950 film Broken Arrow. Arnold’s novel and the film follow army captain and Pony Express rider Tom Jeffords as he ventures into Apache territory during a time of attacks on the infant U.S. mail service. He befriends Apache leader Cochise, and their friendship helps establish a fragile treaty between the U.S. government and the western tribes. In Arnold’s imagination, Jeffords marries an Apache woman named Morning Star, and the fictional ceremony includes the first draft of the blessing:
Now for you there is no rain
For one is shelter to the other.
Now for you there is no sun
for one is shelter to the other.
Now for you nothing is hard or bad,
For the hardness and badness is taken by one for the other.
In the introduction to Blood Brothers, Arnold admits that this was a romantic move on his part, and a rare break in his allegiance to Apache ethnology. He writes: “There is no record of [Jeffords and an Apache girl] ever marrying, but… knowing the basically simple process of an Apache wedding, I have taken a writer’s liberty and imagined that such a wedding took place.”
Putting aside the decades-later discussion about why white men feel like they can inhabit the heads of just about anyone, Arnold’s imagined Apache wedding would go on to provide the liturgical material for thousands of other, non-Apache weddings. It appears in an alarming number of wedding planning resources, presented with the authoritative tone and use of the ahistorical past tense people use when they believe there is no one around to correct them. “Here is the blessing Apaches used in wedding ceremonies,” writes TheKnot.com. A Cheshire County, N.H. travel website lists two different versions of it under the title, “An Ancient First Nations Blessing.” A Houston wedding officiant includes it in a sample ceremony, after an optional Unity Candle ceremony, a ring ceremony, and the standard “do you take” text. Americans have embraced Arnold’s invented bit of culture as inoffensive but profound: just the right mixture for a “spiritual, but not religious” wedding.
Why has Arnold’s poem lived on and mutated when there is so much other, less appropriative poetry to go around? The sad story might be the poem’s ability to “pass” as Native American. For much of American history, native culture has appealed to non-natives, precisely because they have believed it was dead or dying, but also somehow simpler or more authentic than their own culture. Arnold, for all the ethnographic information he draws on in the rest of Blood Brother, seems to know this subliminally: His poem is designed to give the impression of foreign naivete, of simple ritual. What’s remarkable about this particular invented text is how far from the original it has metastasized, transposing it from fakelore to true folklore: it’s succeeded in masquerading as an authorless text for long enough that individual authors feel permitted to put their own touches on it. Of course, the Internet only speeds up such folk processing. I counted at least seven versions of “Apache Wedding Blessing” besides Arnold’s — it seems that every wedding officiant who’s used it has modified it to make it seem either more ancient and traditional or more palatable to the modern couple.
In this way, Arnold’s flight of fancy is not unlike some of the folk songs and stories that America and other nations hold up as symbolic of their primordial identities. Many, far from being source-less “oral literature,” have distinct authors who were stripped of authorship. Others, like the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, were recorded by their collectors in such a way to become aligned with a preconceived notion of national identity. Folklorists like Richard Dorson, author of Folklore and Fakelore, have spared no ink condemning the “fake” material that people persist in believing communicates the essence of their nations — America’s brawn and independence personified by Paul Bunyan, for example. And indeed, despite Arnold’s apparent devotion to Apache ethnography, his deviation from that scholarship started a twentieth-century tradition that relied on the invisibility of living Apache culture.
Alan Dundes, in an article on the influences of nationalism on fakelore, argues that rather than vilifying the commercial or nationalist inventions that pass themselves off as folk culture, folklorists should examine them the way they do all folklore: By recording, tracing sources and trying to determine the patterns of transmission. In his inimitable way, Arlo Guthrie embodies this approach on a live recording of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” (which has its own wild folk history) which he precedes with a story about a Denmark arena just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, full of Europeans who knew all the words to the Elvis song. It’s a story about the export of American culture, or a story about people around the world grabbing onto meaning. “Years ago, folks would argue themselves to death over what a folk song was,” Arlo says, as he finishes folding his story irrevocably into the song. Suddenly, it’s hard to think of Elvis without thinking of Berlin; the song, on its way around the world, gathers a little more gravity, means a little more, even more than it intended.